Saturday, May 16, 2009

"The Planets" by Dava Sobel

Though I'm trying to save trees by buying most of my reading material in electronic form these days, I still have a thing for books, especially good books that are really cheap, like the $4.99 hardcover copy of The Planets by Dava Sobel that I found in a bookstore last week. I've known about this 2005 book for some time, but I thought of it as something of a collection of anecdotes that I'm probably familiar with anyway, so I never bothered to read it.

Silly me. Of course it is pretty much a collection of anecdotal essays about the planets and their places in history and human culture as well as in science. But if you have any interest in astronomy and human history, it's a great read, and Sobel does a fine job of tying together the many threads of the planets' roles in human thought, with a different theme and/or viewpoint for each chapter. Perhaps the most unusual is the chapter on Mars, which is written from the point of view of ALH 84001, a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 and later shown to have come from Mars (carrying microscopic evidence of something interesting - possibly ancient microorganisms). This solar system "old timer" (4.5 billion years old) has seen a lot and tells a good story.

Sobel is an excellent writer, which I knew from having read her book Longitude in 2007 when I visited the Greenwich Observatory in England (Sobel is also a fellow JPL Solar System Ambassador). I understand that her book Galileo's Daughter is also very good, and I just ordered a used copy (unfortunately it's not currently available in the Kindle format I use on my iPod Touch where I'm currently reading Neal Stephenson's ginormous but very entertaining novel Quicksilver with only about 15,000 page flicks to go).

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